By the time we arrived at Mike Davis’ talk at the City Heights Rec Center on Landis Street, it was standing room only. Up to 200 people crowded into the mid-sized room, designed to hold less than half that; people were on the floors, hugging the walls, hanging onto door frames. It was a friendly atmosphere, as neighbor chatted with neighbor, all in anticipation; the audience was almost an even split between older, gray-hairs and younger college types. Organized by Haymarket Books and International Socialist Organization, the groups’ friendly reps staffed the book tables and ran the forum. Justin Akers Chacon, a Chicano activist and professor and Enrique Morones of Border Angels would also speak. A small crew from KPBS was taping the forum.
Currently a resident of San Diego, Davis grew up in El Cajon, and he lent a personalized and first-hand account of the geographic landmarks ravaged by the fires, particularly Otay Mountain and Tecate Peak. Now a professor of history at U.C. Irvine, Davis’ reputation is wide-spread as an “American social commentator, urban theorist, historian, and political activist. He is best known for his investigations of power and social class in his native Southern California,” according to Wikipedia.
Very prolific, Davis’ “City of Quartz” — a pioneering social-architectural and historical rendering of Los Angeles is considered a bible at many architectural schools. His 1998 “Ecology of Fear“, the second in a trilogy about L.A., takes urban development of Southern California to task, with a critique of how we build in fire zones, earthquake zones and flood plains. One of the keys for Mike is his insight that fire, wildfires, are an intrinsic part of the ecology of Southern California. This is what I expected Mike Davis to discuss at the forum.
But when Davis took the podium, he had a somewhat different message. Calling for a dialogue about the last ten days, Davis read an eloquent letter from Paul Harris – a San Diegan stuck at the Superdome in New Orleans during Katrina – sent to the Union-Tribune, and describing the absurdity of comparing Qualcomm to the Superdome (reprinted below). The 2007 Harris Ranch fire, Davis said, burnt sections in southeast county that were spared by the 2003 fires. These were the hills and valleys around Tecate Peak and Otay Mesa.
Mike Davis went on to describe what is the untold story of the fires, how immigrants, particularly in the southeast of the County – near Potrero – had suffered during the fires; 11 had been burned, 200 others arrested, many routed from their camps in the canyons and forced into Mexico or into the arms of Border Patrol agents, and of course the four who died, all due to the Harris fire. Claiming that there were more injuries among immigrants than were reported, he recounted how the Tecate border guards had to flee for their lives due to the advancing flames; how the Mexican press more accurately portrayed what was occurring than our establishment press, how Mexican border police rescued 50 people — all ignored by the press here in San Diego.
In discussing the Witch Creek fire, Davis explained how it flushed migrant areas out — doing something that the Minuteman and vigilante groups have wanted all along. In Rancho Penasquitos, migrant workers were ordered to keep picking tomatoes by their supervisors dispite mandatory evacuation orders and despite the acrid smoke-filled air.
Davis juxtaposed the hidden tragedies of these immigrants with the mainstream media’s focus on Anglos who had to evacuate in North County, in mainly Republican-well-to-do areas. He criticized the way our local politicians, the governor, and then the president, all congratulated themselves on how well this civilized part of the nation responded to the fires, a validation of Republican values.
The talk reaffirmed what many of us had observed: how Bush and Schwarzenegger, Sanders and Roberts, while hugging firefighters, bragged about how our response was better than the response of New Orleans to Katrina.
These same local politicians are the ones responsible for policies that allow new subdivisions in the middle of natural fire zones. And they are also responsible for anti-tax posturing that have starved fire departments and other emergency responders of equipment and personnel. San Diego’s fire chief, Jeff Bowman quit because the city refused to build up the fire fighting resources
Davis summed up his presentation: the untold story of how immigrants in our county suffered from the fires “is the central human tragedy of the recent fires.” Having made his main point, Davis then attacked the local Union-Tribune and TV station coverage. He particularly criticized a U/T reporter, Barfield, who without any evidence made wild allegations about looting and burglaries of the vacant homes intimating that Mexican migrants were responsible, and blamed thefts at Qualcomm on Mexicans. Police spokeswoman Munoz told the press that there were no reports of burglaries at vacant houses. Davis stunned some in the crowd when he informed us why Rep. Duncan Hunter was on KUSI so much — his campaign manager owns the station!
In explaining the dichotomy of how the media handled the fires, just the day of the forum, Thursday, the first of November, the U/T ran a piece that blamed the burned migrants in intensive care for being a burden on tax payers. This was compared to the U/T’s insufficient coverage of all of the injuries suffered by the immigrant community. In the coverage it did provide, the Union-Tribune extolled middle-class Republican values, embraced by every GOP politician from the White House to the County Supervisors.
Davis’ past activism, honed during his sixties involvement in SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, shined at the conclusion of his talk, as he called on San Diegans to stand up to the “Copley monopoly” and against the “corrupt Republican establishment.”
Following Mike Davis, Justin Akers Chacon filled us in with more details of how Latinos had been discriminated in receiving relief from the firestorms: a migrant family was arrested at Qualcom; after that incident, other evacuation centers began requiring ID’s before they would give out food or other aid. At Qualcomm, Mexican families had been woken up in the middle of the night and asked for ID; there were no resources for Spanish-speaking evacuees at Qualcomm.
However, Chacon explained, the Latino community pulled together, after Barrio Logan residents decided to set up a center and provide relief to people regardless of nationality, and the center for those relief efforts was set at Chicano Park. The establishment media failed to report this solidarity.
Chacon also described how Minutemen took action, that small groups drove past their efforts, harassing those involved in the relief. One incident occurred where relief workers were accused by Minutemen of looting the goods they had collected. There was also police intimidation, he added. Plus, the help that Mexico provided us during the fires went under or un-reported. Mexico sent several fire engines, and importantly in one instance — totally unreported — supplied emergency energy to the county when our power lines were threatened. “The fires,” Chacon summarized, “showed a deepened chasm between the haves and the have-nots.”
Enrique Morones, of the Border Angels, speaking in an impassioned voice, described how relief efforts for Latinos centered at Chicano Park delivered 500 truck-loads of food, water and other supplies to immigrant families. There’s a deliberate misrepresentation of Latinos, he declared, in the mainstream media.
During the question & answer session at the end, Mike Davis returned to the mike. In response to my question, he talked of how, after the destruction of wildfires, the rebuilding usually is a process of gentrification; agriculture — burnt out – leaves; the homes that are built are bigger – for example, the homes built after the recent Oakland fire were 50% larger than the ones they replaced.
San Diego is a paradigm, Davis continued, the 2003 fire gave us a warning of what’s to come; the San Diego fire chief resigned over the lack of sufficient fire fighting resources; the Rural Lands Initiative, an attempt by a coalition of back country folks and environmentalists, to limit development in the hinterland, was crushed at the ballot box. The campaign to defeat the anti-sprawl measure was led by developers masquerading as “small farmers.” Finally, Davis explained, the County Supervisors adopted the Shelter in Place plan, a doctrine to allow new building in remote parts, which will accelerate a huge growth.
A fine way to spend a couple hours on a Thursday night. We had to leave as soon as the Q&A session was over, as my leg felt cramped from sitting on the floor. Much to munch upon.